Medical Research Future Fund Webinar 21 July 2021

In this video, Dr Masha Somi provides information about the Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF).



Thank you all for attending today's very first MRFF Webinar. We're hoping to hold these quarterly going forward and so look forward to some future engagements using this format. So, the aim of the webinar is to share information with all the people who are interested about what's happening within the MRFF. Today's presentation will be recorded and placed on the MRFF website, so people will be able to see it at a later date. Before I begin, I'd like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we are all meeting today right around the country. I join from Ngunnawal country here in Canberra. I'd like to pay my respects to Elders past and present and also emerging. And I'd also like to extend that acknowledgement to our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander colleagues who are joining us here today.

So, today's format will be that I'll present for about 30 minutes giving an overview of some key things that are happening in the MRFF. You're able to send through questions or comments through the chat function. And I've got a couple of the team here with me today. They'll be collating your questions and that will support a questions and answer format for the last approximately 30 minutes of the presentation.

So, this slide just gives an overview of what I'll be talking through today. I'll start with an overview of the MRFF and then talk through some of the key features that make the MRFF a little bit different to other funding streams. I'll talk through some key things that you should look out for as a researcher looking to engage with the Medical Research Future Fund and then talk through some highlights from our most recent financial assistance report that was tabled in parliament in June. Finally, I'll share just some other broad information and give you some information about how to stay connected with us.

Many of you will know this anyway, but I'd just like to begin discussions about the MRFF by reminding people that it was established under legislation, which was the Medical Research Future Fund Act back in 2015.

The object of the Act is to improve the health and wellbeing of Australians. So, that's actually a really critical part of the MRFF and our key reason for being. The Act established a $20 billion endowment fund. Now, this is an unusual financing mechanism for health and medical research grant processes. The fund has been built from savings from within the health system, and the final payment of $3.2 billion was made into the fund back in July 2020. And that achieved full capitalisation, the MRFF.

The Medical Research Future Fund in of itself is managed by the Future Fund Board of Guardians who are supported by Future Fund Management Agency, who actually do the financial processes for the fund.

So, the funding from the Medical Research Future Fund is to support the medical research (audio distorts) and medical innovation. We're also only able to provide grants of financial assistance. So, that impacts the mechanisms that we can use to disperse funds. For example, we're not able to enter through into contracts, through procurement.

And the Act also sets out the types of organisations that are able to receive funding through the MRFF, and these are set out sections 20 and 24, and that includes university medical research institutes, corporations, corporate commonwealth entities and states and territories.

So, just a reference back to the object of the act, that's a really critical part of our day to day work within the Health and Medical Research Office and considering the Medical Research Future Fund. You'll see references to that object of the act in all of our grant guidelines. And we, whenever we're looking at undertaking a grant opportunity our question is to ask, what is the role that this funding of this research will do to improve the health and wellbeing of Australians

So, the MRFF sits within a broader context in health and medical research financing. Obviously, there's the MRFF and the NHMRC. The MRFF is priority led. It has a consumer and clinical focus and aims to answer questions that are aimed at improving health outcomes and has a greater focus on translation compared with NHMRC.

At this stage, we're disbursing around $600 million a year in funding. And we've had a quite a rapid growth in disbursement since 2015.

In a complementary way, the NHMRC is predominantly investigator lead, focuses on capacity building and funding the very best ideas to generate knowledge, and it's much closer to supporting basic science than we are in the MRFF. And that relates to, I guess, the focus of the MRFF which is around supporting improved health outcomes that focus on translation. The NHMRC disburses around $880 million a year in funding each year, and its funding quantum has been relatively stable, growing at an index amount each year over the last 20 years. So, both of those health and medical research funds within a broader support structure for health and medical research, that support complements other government funding that's provided to the sector, for example, through block grants and ARC. Researchers are also able to access funding through foundations and also through private income that's provided through universities, for example through international students.

So, the MRFF Act requires that Australian medical innovation strategy and priorities are established. The minister is to take into account the priorities that are enforced when making decisions about funding from the MRFF. And he's also required to report every two years on how the funding that he has provided aligns with those priorities. And that's the report that I'll be talking about in a little bit. The Act also establishes a board, the Australian Medical Research Advisory Board, and their key role is to develop the strategy and the priorities. And in doing so, they must have a national consultation to support that. There are eight members of the board, and that is there in legislation to include the CEO of the National Health Medical Research Council. So, Professor Kelso has been a member of our board for a number of years now and up to seven additional members.

This slide shows the rapid disbursement from the MRFF since inception in about 2015-16. You can see in about 16-17, we disbursed around $61 million, and that has grown to almost $630 million this financial year and will peak at $650 million next financial year. That is 2022-23.

I'd like to show this slide, because what it shows is that we've had to build the foundations of the MRFF and establish all of our processes and procedures at the same time as we've been disbursing significant amounts of funding into the sector. And another consideration for us is to check complexity of the sector and the funding mechanisms and the funding requirements. So, it's been quite an undertaking to be able to do both those things at the same time.

In the 2019-20 budget, the government announced the MRFF 10 year investment plan. And in that plan set out four research themes, which are patients, researchers, research translation, and research missions. Within those themes, government set out 20 initiatives through which $5 billion has been allocated over the next 10 years. So, (audio distorts) (inaudible) and intended outcomes. So, for example, funding through the Million Minds Mental Health Research Mission has to focus on mental health research.

So, these are just some of the ways that the MRFF is different from other funding mechanisms to health medical research within Australia.

So, we have rapid and flexible disbursements to capitalise on health medical research strengths. And that is to say that we, MRFF, is able to be flexible. We are priority led, in that we focus on areas of unmet need or on technologies with transformational potential. We bring together key researchers, health professionals, consumers, stakeholders and industry partnerships into research, and we make effort to harness resources across the system.

And we're also looking at innovative research approaches and new funding models. And I'll talk through one of those today and we'll continue to talk about those, because I understand there's been some interest in them.

So, in terms of being responsive, I guess these are just some examples of how within the MRFF we were able to pivot quite quickly to address or support research into emerging issues. So, we've had up to $96 million allocated for a broad range of research topics to support coronavirus, our COVID-19 research, through our Coronavirus Research Response. We also have a grant opportunity that's currently open looking at the long-term health impacts of COVID-19 and also some investigating the efficacy of alternative vaccination schedules.

We were able to quickly put forward a grant opportunity looking at bushfire impacts, and though there were two streams within that grant opportunity, one focused on psychological impacts of the bushfires and the other on physiological impacts of bushfires.

Another grant opportunity that I think is important in the context of response to being responsive to emerging issues is the Silicosis Research grant opportunities. So, that grant opportunity was able to address some early research priorities that were set out by the National Dust Diseases Taskforce in response to emerging concerns about silicosis harm.

In terms of addressing unmet need, I'll just put forward some examples of where the MRFF focuses on areas of unmet need. So, the first was a grant opportunity that we ran with the engagement of the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee chairs.

And that's looking at whether we can use existing medicines in a more efficient and effective way. So, that grant opportunity ran last year and we've just had a recent announcement from those.

There's also been a grant opportunity on improving diagnosis in low survival cancers. And that was in recognition that for many low survival cancers, that there is a late diagnosis and the effort is to try to support early diagnosis to improve outcomes.

The Indigenous Health Research Fund is an indigenous-led research program that focuses on the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and communities.

And we've also had two grant opportunities under the Australian Brain Cancer Mission that have focused on survivorship. And that was based on feedback from consumers that the experience of survivors was absolutely critical and needed further attention.

So, these are some of the ways that we're trying some new approaches for health and medical research.

We're really focused on bringing in international perspectives into our work. We've had international panels review, the MRFF mission roadmaps and implementation plans. We have tried to have international reviewers on all of our grant assessment committees. But particularly for all of the mission grant assessment committees.


We're focused on evaluation and particularly on measuring impact from the MRFF. And I'll talk a little bit about the monitoring, evaluation and learning strategy later today.

We're looking at how we can support early to mid-career researchers through our funding mechanisms. One of the key ways we've been able to achieve that or to try to promote early to mid-career researchers' success through our grant opportunities is to amend our selection criteria around capacity, capability and resources to have an accessible criteria looking at the research team and whether they have researchers from a broad range of career experiences comprising the team.

We undertake a range of consultations to support policy and program development and AMRAB obviously leads the consultation on the strategy and the priorities as set out by the legislation.

We've had MRFF missions conducting extensive consultation internationally and also within Australia through public consultations. We've had roundtables over the last couple of years focused on topics that varied as medicinal cannabis, ovarian cancer and early to mid-career researchers. And we do engage with peaks and representative groups on our policies and procedures. And I've just listed a couple of examples of where we've gone out and sought advice and input from our peak stakeholder group.

These are, I guess, in looking at how the MRFF is a little bit different, we are looking at new approaches to funding. We've established some different grant models and mostly they are in response to feedback from the sector about opportunities or gaps that might be present in the research funding landscape. We've really focused our selection criteria on outcomes. You'll see we have a standard four criteria in all of our grant opportunities, which are impact, methodology, capacity, capability and resources and overall value and risk.

We have had, I guess, the new approaches in funding that are really focused on improving care and outcomes and just a couple of examples there, the clinician researchers and the rapid applied research translation. And we've also tried to think a little bit differently about the grant assessment committee structure. So, for example, all of our grant assessment committees include a consumer. We have health service providers in all of our grant assessment committees and we also try to include clinicians. And as I mentioned earlier, we try to have an international (inaudible), international representative on all of our grant assessments committees.

So, I guess this is one of the examples that I mentioned earlier, of a new approach to funding grants. This is a model that the minister of health approved in late 2020 for use through the MRFF. And it tries to fill a gap that was identified by researchers in that, there's need to support early stage research. (Inaudible) the unmet need was to be of value to the community health service providers and all health system managers.

The intention of the grants is to provide funding to explore the feasibility of new approaches and the potential impact on health care. And it's also to establish an evidence base to allow future funding opportunities.

So, incubator grants really are small scale research projects, up to a million dollars is provided over it, up to two years. It can be shorter depending on the research project. There's a need to have multidisciplinary teams from a range of disciplines. And just that also, we've been able to use this incubator grant model through a range of MRFF mission grant opportunities from 2020. And I've listed some of those there. We've actually just published a two page resource on the incubator grants on the MRFF website. And that gives a little bit more detailed information about the incubator grant.

So, in highlighting some of the things that are a bit different about the MRFF, I think it's important to acknowledge that the MRFF builds on the strength that exists within the health and medical research sector.

So, we complement the NHMRC, their funding mechanisms to significantly expand support for health and medical research in Australia, which is acknowledged to be world leading. As with NHMRC expert advice informs priority setting. We have AMRAB, NHMRC use of council and both of us use advisory committees. We're also relying heavily on independent assessment of grant applications, and that's to support us to be a merit-based program.

I do like to remind people when looking at MRFF grant, opportunities that the MRFF is quite different. So, we run between 40 and 55 grant opportunities each year. And unlike other funding bodies, each grant opportunity is different. So, I encourage people to look beyond the title or the initiative and have a really good look at Section 1.3, which sets out the objective and intended outcome of the grant opportunity. Have a close look at the eligibility criteria, which is Section 3 and also the selection criteria, which is Section 5. So, with the selection criteria, while we have four overarching criteria, we will often amend the text that describes those criteria to be really closely aligned with the intended objectives and outcomes that were set out in Section 1.3.

All of the grant opportunities align with the Australian medical research and innovation priorities that are in force and that is laid out in Section 1.3. The grant opportunities have to align with the objective of the MRFF initiative that it sits within. So, for example, within the Primary Healthcare Research initiative, all of their grant opportunities have to be focused on primary health care. And the other thing that started in the last six or so months is that, researchers are required to identify how their projects will contribute to the MRFF measures of success. And that set out in Section five, particularly assessment criteria one, which is about impact and criteria four which is about overall value and risk.

This is the program structure for the MRFF. It shows how the Medical Research Future Fund translates into four themes. The four research themes, which then translate into 20 initiatives, which then result in grant opportunities and grant agreements. So, I guess we can work from the left to the right in terms of aligning the MRFF all the way down to the grant agreements.

But it also works the other way that each grant agreement has to align to the objectives that's set out in the grant opportunity, which must align with the objectives set out in the initiative and the theme, and therefore the Medical Research Future Fund.

So, evaluations are really critical component for the MRFF, because it is a priority led fund, so we have identified key areas that need focus from a health, medical research perspective. And so we need to assess whether we are actually achieving the intended outcomes of those initiatives. This is the conceptual framework that underpins the monitoring, evaluation and learning strategy, which was approved by the minister in late 2020 and published on our website. So, you can see there's a vision, an aim and five impact measures. And these all came from the Australian Medical Research and Innovation Strategy from 2016 to 2021. And using those key components from the strategy we established 8 key measures of success for the MRFF. So, the strategy provides a framework for assessing the impact of the MRFF, the four themes, the 20 initiatives, each of the grant opportunities and also the grant agreements.

So, what that means is that we apply this framework to all levels of the MRFF. As I flagged earlier, now, in all of our grant opportunities, we ask applicants to outline how their research projects will contribute to the measures and success of the MRFF. And those claims are assessed by the grant assessment committee as part of the assessment of the value and risk of the program and also the impact of the project. And that forms part of the selection of successful grants. And each year, grant recipients are required to report on how they've progressed with the measures that they've identified, the contribution that they've said that they will make towards those measures of success. And we'll be reviewing those progress reports to assess how the projects are proceeding.


So far, we've completed two evaluations in the MRFF. One on the Medical Research Commercialisation initiative and one on the Rapid Applied Research Translation initiative. The reports from both of those are available on the MRFF website.

At the moment, we're working on two evaluations, which the minister for health has signed off on. The first being a review of the Million Minds Mental Health Mission and the second an evaluation of the Clinical Trials Activity initiative.

And so a couple of new things that will be coming up that you might see within the next few months for the MRFF. So, we've got sort of these innovation grants and accelerator grants. And again, both of these are new grant approaches that are being put into place in response to feedback from researchers about gaps in the funding landscape. Innovation grants are small scale funding around $200,000 over 12 months to support good ideas that need resources to fully establish the feasibility of the project. So, it's short term funding to support innovative or creative ideas that maybe haven't been rated or that haven't been rated fundable through an existing grant opportunity.

We've established accelerator grants. They are large scale funding streams up to $5million over five years. And they're designed to support large teams to implement a comprehensive work program to address a gap in health care practice. So, particularly, the accelerator grant was really in response to comments that, or feedback from researchers, that they were having to go to multiple sources of funding in order to generate all of the resources that they needed to implement a program of work. And so we've established a relatively large funding stream to support that. We've just published a two page resource on the accelerator grants that is now available on the MRFF website that you can have a look at as well.

So, we've gone through a process to put into place some systems and procedures to allow us to systematically review annual progress and final reports that are provided by grant recipients. That'll mean that we'll be going through each report in a very sort of thorough basis to try to really get a good sense of what's happening in the projects that have been funded through the MRFF. And to identify success stories which will be feeding into our evaluation strategy, but also any sort of risks or patterns that we might be able to observe through the projects that we're funding.

We're working with NHMRC to establish a new class of organisations which will be called eligible organisations. Historically, only administering institutions have been able to apply to MRFF funded grant opportunities that are managed through the NHMRC. And we've been going through a process to allow different types of organisations to apply for MRFF grant opportunities managed by NHMRC. Those organisations will have to meet the criteria that are set out in the MRFF Act, which I spoke about earlier, Sections 20 and Section 24 of the MRFF Act. But what it will mean is new and different organisations will be able to apply for MRFF funding through the NHMRC, and we're hoping that will be or expecting that will be in place in the next month to two months.

We've been working with NHMRC in particular and also with Business Grants Hub to increase the chief investigator limits. So, within the MRFF only, each project has been able to have only up to 10 chief investigators and we'll be looking to increase that to 15.

And that's really in recognition of the fact that we're calling for large multidisciplinary teams and we didn't want a sort of an IT or system barrier to impact the nature and the structure of those teams.

We're also including in some grant agreements, what we'll call access clauses. So, these clauses will be used for a select group of projects that could result in a commercial output. So, these clauses do not impact the IP at all. And the aim of the clauses is to ensure that Australia is able to access the products developed through MRFF funding. Now the classic for these have been COVID-19 vaccines, where we felt that in supporting the development and establishment of new COVID-19 vaccines, if they were to produce a commercial product at the end, we would want Australians to have access to those vaccines. The way that the clauses operate, is that access is on market terms. So, there isn't an expectation that we'd be getting a cheaper or a discounted rate. It's just that we'd be able to get access early to those commercial products.

I'll just go through some of the key findings from the Financial Assistance Report. So, Section 57a of the legislation requires that the minister is to table a report or a description of how the grants that he's provided through the MRFF are in alignment with the priorities that were in force during that period. So, that we've had two reports published covering the two MRFF priorities that have been in force. And I'll talk about report two, which covers the 2018 to 2020 priorities.

So, you'll see, I guess the first part of this chart really shows that between the two times, the two priority periods, there has been a really rapid scale up in disbursements from the MRFF. So, we had 86 grants valued at $126 million, provided between 2016 and 2018. And that compares with 366 grants valued at $983 million that was provided between 2018 and 2020. Those 366 grants came from 79 grant opportunities that we ran in that two year period. So, you can also see that about 25% of that investment was provided through the missions.


There were 95 grants at about $250 million. Also, of that funding, there were 49 projects valued at about $58 million that have been provided for COVID-related research.

This is success through the MRFF by gender and age. So, at a really high level, what we're seeing is that we've got pretty good comparable success rates between female and male applicants. What we're hoping is as our data holdings grow, we'll be able to do much more detailed analysis. We've had, I think, about 650 grants now awarded through the MRFF, valued at $1.8 billion. And so as our numbers grow in terms of grants and quantum, I think we'll be able to do much more powerful analysis, because when the numbers are quite small, the meaningfulness of the comparisons is quite limited.

Again, at this stage, the diversity and the distribution of success by age is quite reasonable.

We've had a look at, like successful applications by broad research area. We've got relatively high proportions of successful grants in public health and clinical medicine and science and relatively low proportions for basic science, which is likely to be expected from a fund that's focused on research translation.

So, this chart shows that whilst the majority of grant recipients were universities and medical research institutes, there are a range of other funding groups that were in receipt of MRFF funding. And also that we've had about a 25% success rate overall through the MRFF.

Just, I guess, the slide about our grant assessment committees. As I flagged earlier, we have a real focus on ensuring we have international representatives. And so of the almost 360 experts who sat on our grant assessment committees, around 8% were international members and about half were male and female. Just slightly on the right there, we've got a list of the skill sets and the experiences that we look for in all of our grant assessment committees. So, this builds on the requirements that are set out by NHMRC and Business Grants Hub in terms of the requirements for grant assessment committees. This is an additional layer that we ask for through the MRFF, to ensure that we have a sort of a broad representation, and skill set on the grant assessment committees, that it's beyond peer review and looking at other sort of consumer and health service views as well.

Many of you will know the terms of the inaugural AMRAB members expired in late February 2021. We are working with government to establish a new AMRAB for the period 21 to 26. And like a very important factor for that in terms of timing, is that we do need to have a new medical research and innovation strategy tabled in November 2021. And that will be the second strategy. Now that time frame is set by legislation and also note that the legislation requires that we have to have a national consultation in setting that strategy as well.

These are the current grant opportunities that are open at the moment through the MRFF. I flagged the COVID-19 research. There's some clinical trial grant opportunities that are available and also for mental health. The 2021 Improving the Health and Wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Mothers and Babies, I'll just draw to your attention that, that incorporates the accelerated grant model and also the innovation grant model that I spoke about a little bit earlier.

Just to flag that we are receiving feedback and we are always very grateful for feedback and advice and commentary on how we're going and how we can improve things. Obviously, we have feedback via AMRAB which we look at and consider and take account of. We regularly seek feedback from the sector, including through structured processes. So, an example of that is we went out to some of our peak groups late last year and sought advice on how our guidelines were being interpreted and if there were any unintended consequences that were arising from how they were written and structured. And that helped us in refining our grant guidelines over the last six months or so.

We identified gaps in funding opportunities and a sort of a classic example of that is artificial intelligence, that there really wasn't an existing funding stream in Australia to pool artificial intelligence research. And so we ran a grant opportunity in late 2019, specifically calling for projects that had artificial intelligence focused on health.

We scanned the environment for emerging issues and any unmet needs. And we also take a close look at what's happening within grant opportunities. So, if we find that we have a grant opportunity in a particular topic and there's a lot of interest and quite a strong field, we would consider that in designing future grant opportunities as well, in the same way that if we have a grant opportunity that really doesn't generate as much interest in as many applications, we would factor that in considering future options.

Here are some useful resources, we recently published a grant calendar, I think that was published in June this year. And that has a full list of the grant opportunities since January last year.

We have a grant recipient list also on the website. And we've started to publish information about MRFF-funded projects and details about how the projects are going. And so that's also available on our website and we'll continue to update the projects.


Just to call out that you may or may not have seen in the last newsletter that we actually encouraged or invited organisations to let us know about their great projects so that we can consider featuring them in this MRFF project part of our website.

So, we will expect to have our next webinar, probably in October this year. We'll probably be well placed to cover the missions, you'll have probably seen there was a public consultation that concluded in April that has resulted in refinement of roadmaps and implementation plans for six of the eight missions. And we're expecting that by October we'll be able to give an update on that process. I'll share a little bit more information about accelerator grants and any other MRFF updates that are happening and in train.

If you have any topics of interest or things you'd like me to talk about, if you can please email, and we'll put that into our planning.

So, here's just some advice about how to keep connected with us. Please subscribe to our monthly newsletter. We're always encouraging people to nominate for MRFF grant assessment committees. People who've been on committees have, I guess, said to me that it's been a really valuable process and given them really useful insights in how MRFF funding operates, because they get to see, I guess, the deliberations of the selection criteria and how a panel might come to recommendations about funding for individual grants.

Please register for all grants through the GrantConnect, for all Australian Government grant opportunities are posted there, and we’ve just started using the department’s twitter handle, I should say, I’m not great with that technology, so please, I guess, you can find out more information through that process and we’ll be actively pushing and promoting information about the MRFF through that.

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On 21 July 2021, Dr Masha Somi, Chief Executive Officer of the Health and Medical Research Office, hosted a webinar on the MRFF. Topics included MRFF priorities, grant opportunities and recent outcomes. This video is a recording of the webinar.

During the webinar, viewers were invited to ask questions about the MRFF.

Read the webinar presentation and response to questions.


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